It is always difficult to narrow down my annual list to ten titles. The top five were easy to slot in, but there were another eleven I wanted to list. I have once again included the honorable mentions that did not make the final cut so that all the books I think were remarkable are included.
This year’s list sees the return of a few of my perennial favorites, though sadly, there is no new Steph Cha book for me to add to the list, and I am not picking up the final volume of The Expanse series until later today. Here is what made me 2021 Top Ten list:
10. Eathereater – Dolores Reyes
A young woman begins to feel compelled to eat dirt soon after her mother dies. When she does eat earth, she has visions of people with a connection to that soil. Though the locales are unsettled by her ability, people begin leaving jars of dirt with notes pleading for her assistance. This short novel was truly unique and unsettling.
9. Bullet Train – Kotaro Isaka
Bullet Train is an odd balance of fast-paced action, quirky humor, and Japanese psychological thriller. Mayhem ensues when a mix of criminals-for-hire and a youthful psychopath end up on the same train for several interrelated reasons. I have always had a soft spot for books set on trains, and the Shinkansen is a key to the story as the Orient Express in Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit. The movie adaptation is set to be released next year.
8. All Systems Red – Martha Wells
All Systems Red and protagonist Murderbot are unexpectedly charming. It is surprisingly easy to relate to Murderbot, who wants little more than to be left alone so they can watch their soaps. Funny and fast-paced, this slim novella left me excited to read the rest of the series.
7. Razorblade Tears – S.A. Cosby
Ike, a Black man, and reformed convict turned successful business owner, and Buddy Lee, a White good old boy ex-con with a penchant for drinking, would not normally associate with each other. However, when their married sons are murdered, both Ike and Buddy Lee are left with feelings of shame and regret over the strained relationships they had with their sons. Together, they start to look into the death of their sons.
Often my favorite crime novels are when the crime or mystery component takes a backseat to characters and setting to the point of the crime being almost superfluous. Renee “Cash” Blackbear, one of the disproportionate number of American Indian children removed from parental care and raised in various white foster homes, spends her days as a Minnesota farm laborer and truck driver and her evenings drinking and shooting pool in the local bars. Cash occasionally serves as an unofficial sidekick to the local Sheriff, and when a body is found in a field, Cash begins to dream of the victim’s house and family. Cash and 1970s Minnesota Red River Valley are the reason to keep reading – and I wish there were more to read.
5. Untamed Shore – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet was the Night is on most of the 2021 notable books lists, same for Mexican Gothic last year and Gods of Jade and Shadow the year before that. That Untamed Shore managed to go largely unnoticed is a tragedy. This bildungsroman-cum-noir is more compelling and relatable than Velvet was the Night or Mexican Gothic.
4. The Secret Place – Tana French
Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is consistently outstanding. I completed both Broken Harbor and The Secret Place in 2021. Broken Harbor was perhaps my least favorite of the series, and still very good, whereas, The Secret Place may be my favorite so far. French continues to cycle familiar characters from previous books into starting roles to excellent effect. I am excited to start the final installation of the series sometime soon.
3. The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Vietnam War is coming to an end, and as Saigon is about to fall, a Captain begins to plan his General’s escape from the county. Together, with a select few, they flee Saigon on one of the last army transports over-crowded with other refugees. The Captain, half-French half-Vietnamese, a man of two minds, is a communist agent whose role is to observe and report back on the military cadre as they establish themselves in America. As suspicion of a mole rises, the Captain must deflect attention away from himself at terrible costs. This was a poignant and relevant contemplation of war, refugees, politics, and film considering the parallels of the recent withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan.
2. The Queen’s Gambit – Walter Tevis
I started reading The Queen’s Gambit shortly after seeing that Netflix has released a new series based on the book. The story follows orphan Beth Harmon as she discovers and embraces her natural genius for chess. Beth’s struggles with loneliness and addiction are simultaneously exacerbated by and inhibiting to her meteoric rise in the national chess rankings.
1. The Library At Mount Char – Scott Hawkins
It is not too often that a book manages to be so thoroughly unique, strange, and enjoyable from start to finish. After my wife finished reading it, she insisted, nearly daily, that I read it immediately, not so I would enjoy an excellent book, but instead to have some to share in the same “what just happened” experience. I have since hunted down several RRPL staff members to ask them what they thought of The Library At Mount Char.